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As the names of the 53 immigrants who died in a tractor-trailer last week in Texas have slowly been released, so has a clearer picture of their stories and what led to what appears to be the deadliest human smuggling incident in US history.
On Friday, the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office said all but one of the 53 immigrants who died in a sweltering tractor-trailer on the outskirts of San Antonio have been identified. Of the 45 names with demographic information the medical examiner’s office released on Friday, most were Mexican men who were hoping to make more money in the US to support their families.
Among them was Efrain Ferrel Garcia, a 22-year-old who was recently married; J. Marcial Trejo Hernandez, 38, who on Father’s Day left his home to cross the border for the second time; José López Muñiz, who was also making his second journey to the US with the hopes of making more money to support his 3- and 7-year-old sons.
But also among the dead were six children. The deaths of two cousins, 13 and 14 years old, who were from an Indigenous Guatemalan community, have stood out to researchers and immigrant advocates because of how young they were.
Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin, said the profile of most of the immigrants who died in the trailer matched what researchers normally see for people who travel in between official border crossings and hope to evade Border Patrol.
The two cousins from Guatemala, Pascual Guachiac Sipac and Juan Tulul Tepaz, don’t fit the profile of the immigrants typically seen trying to evade US immigration authorities, Leutert said.
Non-Mexican immigrant children will often cross the border alone and present themselves to Border Patrol agents who then process them as unaccompanied minors. Unlike the majority of immigrants and asylum-seekers who are detained at the US–Mexico border, unaccompanied immigrant minors are put on a track that allows them to remain in the US and be released to a sponsor, usually a friend or family member.
“Not only would this be preferable because it’s safer since you don’t have to risk your life traveling in a tractor-trailer, around a checkpoint, or in the trunk of a car,” Leutert said. “It’s actually usually cheaper for those individuals as well.”
It’s not unheard of to see children that young take a more dangerous route such as the one Pascual and Juan took, but it’s not common, Leutert said.
Despite the horrors the immigrants in this incident endured, the deaths are unlikely to deter the vast majority of people who want to make the trek to the US border, Leutert said. There’s a difference between knowing the dangers that could befall someone on their journey to the US and thinking it could happen to you, Leutert said.
“Maybe some people out there will see this case and think, No, I don’t want to do that, or a parent will say no,” Leutert said. “For the majority of people, they are not viewing their migration as a fully voluntary decision but rather one they need to take whether due to violence, hunger, or the inability to live a prosperous and dignified life within their own community.”
It’s hard to know why the two teens went that route without more information from the family. It could be that the boys and their families didn’t know presenting themselves as unaccompanied minors was an option, that the smugglers didn’t tell them in an attempt to make more money, or they were traveling with an adult family member they didn’t want to be separated from, Leutert said.
Rubén Figueroa, an immigrant rights activist who helps coordinate searches for those who go missing on their journey, said the two cousins were smuggled from their country of origin to the US in order to work there. This isn’t an issue that should be dealt with from a border security perspective, Figueroa said, but rather a problem that countries of origin plagued by poverty, corruption, and violence must confront in order to avoid a tragedy like this.
“What the tragedy in San Antonio, Texas, reveals is something alarming,” Figueroa said. “It’s something society and politicians need to know, that boys and girls are being trafficked from Central America to the US in order to work in the country.”
Pascual’s grandmother told Al Jazeera that the 13-year-old had planned to reunite with his father, who had been in the US for a year, and continue his studies there.
“Our family is saddened by the loss,” Manuela Coj, the boy’s grandmother, told Al Jazeera. “His dream was to finish his studies there in the United States. He wanted to leave a better future for his family members.”
The two boys were from the Indigenous Mayan K’iche’ community of Tzucubal in Guatemala’s western highlands.
Telemundo and CNN en Español reported that Pascual and Juan had hoped to work in the US and make enough money to lift their families out of poverty.
“He had so many dreams. He dreamed of a better future, building a home, supporting his siblings as well as his father,” María Tutul, Juan’s cousin, told CNN en Español.
Footage taken shortly after the cousin’s deaths were confirmed shows an inconsolable family, sobbing with their faces against the wall.
Manuel Tulul, Juan’s father, told Telemundo that before his son left for the US he told him he was going to fight for a better life there.
“He left because of poverty,” Tulul told Telemundo.
Nearly half of the people in Guatemala live in poverty, according to the World Bank Group. That rate rises to nearly 80% for Indigenous people like Pascual and Juan, who make up more than 40% of the country’s population.
Climate change has continued to fuel food insecurity in Guatemala, which has led to an increase in migration to the US. In Guatemala, 1 in every 2 children suffers from chronic malnutrition, according to UNICEF.
Poverty and the Guatemalan government’s inability to provide social services to support those in need have pushed many to immigrate to the US and send money back home to their families. In 2021, Guatemala received $15 billion in remittances, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, DC–based think tank.
Misael Olivares Monterde, 16, was among the youngest of those who died in the tractor-trailer. The Mexican teenager had traveled to the border with his cousins — Yovani Valencia Olivares, 16, and Jair Valencia Olivares, 20. All three were among the dead.
The cousins wanted to work, save up money, and return to Mexico in four years to open their own clothing and shoe store, the Associated Press reported. Their parents had taken out loans, using their homes as collateral, to pay for the $10,000 smuggling fee for each cousin.
The night before he left, Misael asked his mom to wake him up when it was time for him to leave for the US.
“For a moment, I thought about not doing it so he wouldn’t go,” Hermelinda Monterde Jiménez told the AP. “But it was his decision and his own dream.”
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